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Thailand wins praise for AIDS vaccine trial

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Thailand wins praise for AIDS vaccine trial

An experimental AIDS vaccine that appears to be the first to protect people was mired for years in controversy, and credit for its success must go to Thailand where the trial was conducted, experts said.

The trial was criticised five years ago by 22 prominent U.S. scientists who doubted it would have any effect. Washington was accused of wasting more than a $100 million by funding it.

But Thai health authorities and their U.S. partners at the National Institutes of Health and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research pressed on with the trial involving 16,000 volunteers in a country at the forefront of the battle against HIV.

“It was a tough decision. I am glad we made it,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who defied the criticism and continued the trial.

The trial vaccine was made using two failed products — Sanofi-Pasteur’s ALVAC canary pox/HIV vaccine and AIDSVAX, made by a San Francisco company called VaxGen and now owned by the non-profit Global Solutions for Infectious Disease.

Donald Burke, dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, said the trial was controversial from the start and had been dismissed by prominent U.S. scientists because of the failure of previous vaccine tests.

“But given the importance of the AIDS epidemic, the decision was made to go forward regardless of these criticisms. It was a difficult choice, but a courageous choice,” said Burke, who was head of AIDS research at Walter Reed before retiring in 1997.

Burke isolated the AIDS virus taken from a young HIV-infected Thai soldier in 1989 after Thai army doctors discovered an HIV outbreak among young recruits in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. That virus sample went on to become one of the seed viruses in the experimental vaccine, Burke said.

To their credit the Thais did a remarkable job on this,” Dr. Eric Schoomaker, the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army, told reporters. “They did remarkable job of recruiting volunteers and conducting this trial almost flawlessly.”

The $105 million trial was sponsored and paid for by the U.S. government and results showed it cut the risk of infection by 31.2 percent among 16,402 volunteers over three years.

THAI TRIUMPH

Those results mark a triumph for Thailand, a country of 67 million people where a booming sex industry had stoked fears of a major epidemic. Local authorities battled hard against a disease that threatened to spiral out of control some 20 years ago.

Experts had predicted that 4 million people would be infected by 2000 if nothing was done to slow the spread of HIV. But a massive government-led Aids education and prevention campaign in the early 1990s had an enormous effect.

HIV prevalence among injecting drug users in Thailand was as high as 30-50 percent in 1991, and 33.2 percent among female sex workers in 1994, according to UNAIDS. The number of infections has since been reduced to 20,000 annually from 140,000 in 1991.

Billboards and airwaves were bombarded with safe sex messages while health workers promoted condom use in the country’s notorious sex trade. Leading the campaign was “Mr Condom,” family planner-turned Public Health Minister, Meechai Viravaidya.

Health check-ups were made available to sex workers for free. Men were discouraged from visiting prostitutes and condom usage in Bangkok’s brothels rose from 15 percent in the early 1990s to 98 percent by 2000.

Infection rates fell and the exercise remains widely cited as a model in disease prevention among health experts — although numbers have shown signs of creeping up in the last few years among some high risk groups, such as gay and bisexual men.

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More kids have autism than thought: U.S. study

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More kids have autism than thought: U.S. study

You may have heard the oft-quoted statistic that autism affects 1 in 150 US children. Turns out it’s more like 1 in 91 — and about 1 in 58 boys, according to new figures released Sunday.

That’s an estimated 673,000 US children — or approximately 1 percent of all U.S. kids, the researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, and Harvard Medical School, Boston report in the journal Pediatrics.

Bob Wright, co-founder of the autism advocacy group Autism Speaks, told Reuters Health he’s not at all surprised by the new figures. “We’ve been screaming about the numbers going up; now there is a relatively complete recognition of it.”

“The statistical aspect of autism is just staggering,” he said, and not enough is being done about it. “If we had 1 in 58 boys getting swine flu, the country would be crazy,” Wright said.

Autism is a brain disorder characterized by problems with social interaction, repetitive behavior and other symptoms. People with a mild version called Asperger’s syndrome usually function relatively well in society, although they have problems relating to others. People with the most extreme symptoms may be unable to speak and may also suffer severe mental illness and retardation.

No one knows what causes autism — it’s generally thought to have genetic and environmental triggers — and there is currently no good treatment.

Autism is “an urgent public health concern,” Dr. Ileana Arias, deputy director of CDC, told reporters on a conference call Friday ahead of public release of the data.

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‘It’s never too late to start exercising’ claim scientists

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‘It’s never too late to start exercising’ claim scientists

In more than a decade of work, Israeli academics took nearly 2,000 pensioners aged 70 and tested their fitness at ages 70, 78, and 85.

Those doing less than four hours of exercise a week were classed as ”sedentary” and those doing four hours were termed ”active”.

The team from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University Medical Centre and Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School found active 70- to 78-year-olds were 12 per cent less likely to die than their sedentary counterparts.

Those between 78 and 85 were 15 per cent less likely to die.

And those aged 85 to 88 were 17 per cent less likely to die.

The benefits of exercise were also found to include more independence, less loneliness and better general health.

The authors wrote: ”The clinical ramifications are far-reaching.

”As this rapidly growing sector of the population assumes a prominent position in preventive and public health measures, our findings clearly support the continued encouragement of physical activity, even among the oldest old.

”Indeed, it seems that it is never too late to start.”

The findings are published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

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